Why the Car-Free Streets Movement Will Continue to Grow

When asked what they like most about a city they have visited, almost no one answers: “The cars whizzing by on the streets.” Cultural attractions, the people we meet, walking through the city and gazing at plazas, buildings, and places—these are the things that make a city unique.

What if there was a way to get more of what we all like and less of the noise and congestion we don’t? Many cities are working towards that goal, by closing major streets to traffic and opening them up to people.

Cities have limited space, and how it is allocated is tremendously important for people. The denser a place, the dearer each square foot is. Yet all over the world, cities were retrofitted to accommodate cars, giving them an outsized portion of urban space and limiting the area in which people could walk, sit at cafes, or play games with friends.

Many cities in America are newer than those in other parts of the world; most were born before cars but expanded tremendously afterwards. This wasn’t the case in Europe, where centuries of settlement made it difficult for the continent to fully succumb to the automobile. In the postwar era, European cities could have followed America’s lead in designing around cars. Most, however, made very different choices.

A key moment in this history took place in 1953, when the Dutch city of Rotterdam made a major thoroughfare, Lijnbaan St, a purpose-built pedestrian street that was completely car-free. The goal was to create a modern city center that would thrive—and thrive it did—by closing space to vehicles and opening more room to people.

At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts. But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones. Rotterdam and its local businesses ended up seeing great success after this policy change, and this showed early on the efficacy of closing streets to traffic and opening them to people.

Many other cities in Europe followed suit, and this—coupled with heavy and sustained investment in public transit, bicycle infrastructure, and more—created a very different urban experience for generations of city dwellers. Fast-forward to now, where places like Amsterdam are seeking to ban all gas-powered cars from its downtown by 2030, and you can see the effect of longstanding policy choices on how we experience a city.

In the U.S., we have seen a rapid rise in biking, and now e-scooters, in our cities. With this, there is increasingly a feeling that the geometry of space shouldn’t favor one very large mode of transportation over others that need room to grow and flourish. The use of shared bikes and scooters has grown tremendously in just a short period of time—more than double the number of trips between 2017 and 2018—with 84 million shared micromobility journeys taking place last year. In 2019 this number has only continued to grow, reinforcing the need for greater space for mobility choices.  

Today, we see a growing movement in cities throughout the world to stem the usage of cars and close streets to unmitigated traffic. The two most prominent examples in the U.S. are New York City, with the closing of 14th Street, and San Francisco, which will soon close Market Street to cars.

With less than a quarter of Manhattan residents owning cars, New York City seems like a prime place to give people more options to get around. This is just what the city has done by closing 14th Street and making it a dedicated busway. What was once one of New York’s most congested streets is now a spot that is friendlier for pedestrians and bicyclists, with markedly increased bus speeds. While some motorists have complained about what they perceive as a disruption, data shows that the streets to which traffic has been diverted are not more congested. And people feel like their needs are being centered, with former parking spaces turning into urban green spaces.

The numbers reinforce the success of this experiment in New York City as bus trips have accelerated—sometimes so fast drivers have to stop to let the schedule catch up—from an average of 15.1 minutes to travel before the shift to 10.6 minutes afterwards. This 30 percent decrease in travel time demonstrates how people can move faster through cities if purpose is aligned to policy.

Heading out west, San Francisco’s government has voted to close Market Street to cars. Market Street is one of the main thoroughfares in the city’s downtown and in many ways epitomizes the inequalities running rampant in the city by the bay, with Twitter and other tech giants sharing space with homeless people sleeping rough on sidewalks.

By seeking to transform the boulevard, the city will build a better, safer place for the 500,000 pedestrians that use the street daily. San Francisco officials plan to reduce the size of the street, widen sidewalks, and add an eight-foot-wide bike lane for bikes and e-scooters. With streetcars and buses still breezing down the center, people will have more choices to get where they need to go. Advocates and city officials alike don’t see the plans for Market Street in isolation, but as the beginning of a broader movement to close more streets to traffic and open them to people.

While these two examples in New York and San Francisco are the most prominent street closures, they are by no means the only instances of city leaders taking back space from cars and giving it to people. There are thriving pedestrian zones in Denver, Santa Monica, Madison, Charlottesville, and Chicago, to name a few. The asphalt art initiative is sparking opportunities to reclaim streets for people, with cities like Oakland and Asheville leading the way in creating murals on streets. These kinds of changes could effectively transform the ground beneath us so that it is centered around recreation, not racing.

And it’s a global movement. To our north, Toronto’s King Street pilot is a model, in Europe, Barcelona’s superblocks are laying new ground, and in Asia, Tokyo’s approach to on-street parking is exemplary. Not to mention in the southern hemisphere, where Curitiba, Brazil, has seen long-standing success with its dedicated busways that are a model widely replicated around the world.

All of this energy, both new and long-standing, reflects the priorities that people are placing on building better cities. Cars have their place in cities, but the place of people in cities needs to be given a more central role, and we can and should reduce the primacy of vehicles. It all comes down to geometry. Since, there is only so much space in cities, let’s make sure it’s for people.  

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Are D.C.’s Streets Finally Getting Safer?

Last year in Washington, D.C., a pair of city council members grilled the head of the city’s department of transportation on the status of bike and pedestrian projects in the District. It had been three years since the city had committed to following the traffic-calming principles outlined in Vision Zero, the international movement to reduce the injury toll associated with cars and trucks in cities. But the results, so far, had been disappointing: By that point in the year, 34 people overall had died on the city’s roads—D.C.’s worst year for traffic deaths in a decade.

The council members, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen, wanted an update from Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, on what the city had been doing in its efforts to make the streets safer. But as the hearing wore on, his answers started to sound like a refrain: Almost every new bike- or pedestrian-infrastructure project, from a road diet on Maryland Avenue to an Eastern Downtown protected bike lane, seemed to be about six to nine months away. In fact, the city task force that was supposed to coordinate Vision Zero policy across city agencies had only just met for the first time the month before.

“Do you get why that’s frustrating to hear?”Allen said to Marootian. “I think we can do more, and I want to impress on you that I think we need to treat this with a higher level of urgency. Why aren’t we experimenting with all kinds of different ways to pilot different ideas? If we mess it up, it’s a can of paint.”

Last month, the city council reconvened with Marootian for a seven-hour redux of that hearing, and there were signs that this advice had been heeded. In 2019, DDOT established a Vision Zero Office, fast-tracked quick-build safety projects like adding plastic pylons at crosswalks to slow drivers turns, and piloted some new ideas, such as dedicated bus lanes or painted curb extensions, that could be executed with little more than a can of paint. So far, 21 people have died from road crashes this year in the District, putting the city on track for the lowest number of traffic fatalities since the city committed to Vision Zero in 2015.

It’s a modest sign of progress, to be sure, especially considering the campaign’s ambitious benchmark. But it’s progress all the same.  

When D.C. joined 13 other U.S. cities in making the Vision Zero commitment, its goal—eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024—seemed ambitious but also somehow achievable. Transformative safety improvements and a new era of technocratic, data-driven mobility were said to be a few short years away; self-driving vehicle technology appeared to be poised to eliminate the error-prone humans who were racking up 40,000 fatalities a year in the United States. Instead, technology has arguably made drivers worse, by dazzling them with digital distractions that have made cars even more lethal to other road users. While driving deaths have declined, this year United States is having its deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990.

What’s more, Vision Zero has run up against decades of institutional inertia. Departments of transportation have long focused on optimizing urban streets grids for automobiles; retooling these bodies to focus more attention on walkers and bike riders has proved daunting. D.C.’s bumpy Vision Zero journey offers an instructive illustration of how difficult this process can be. In the case of this city, it took something else—a tragic pair of fatalities and a fired-up advocacy community—to speed up the District’s push for safer streets.

That process is ongoing. At the October hearing, the room learned that a 15-year-old girl had been killed earlier that day on East Capitol Street. Minutes after learning that news, three younger residents spoke to the council about the importance of Vision Zero in the clearest way possibly. “There are too many cars,” Siddharth Kravitz, 9, told the council. “It’s hard to cross the street. Every day someone driving a car comes close to killing us. It makes me scared. They go way too fast.”

Two victims, and a powerful pushback

Rachel Maisler did not want the summer of 2019 to be like the one before it. In 2018, Maisler, a health and aging policy consultant who now chairs the D.C.’s Bicycle Advisory Council, spent a lot of time organizing rides for the dedication of ghost bikes for three cyclists killed in the District that year. She also organized the dedication of a ghost scooter in Dupont Circle.

There’s a lot of organizational labor behind these memorials: You need to find a bike to paint white, write to elected officials, contact the slain cyclist’s family, pick a route, and invite DDOT and the press to attend. For Maisler and her fellow riders, it had become all too routine.

At each memorial ride, Maisler called for the city council to hold a public hearing on D.C.’s lack of progress on its Vision Zero commitments. “It felt like we were getting to the tipping point, where the city would have to act,” Maisler says. “We did this on our own time, because we thought more needed to be done in response to these fatalities.”

The new year began with some positive signs. In January 2019, DDOT installed yellow pylons and white flexposts to slow down sharp turns from drivers and installed signs to ban right-turns-on-red at 100 intersections around the city. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Linda Bailey, previously the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to head the city’s new Vision Zero Office. In March, the mayor signaled a sort of reset on the policy, as city officials participated in a Vision Zero Summit sponsored by the Washington Area Bicycling Association in March.

But on Friday, April 19, a driver in a stolen van struck and killed Dave Salovesh while he was waiting at a red light on Florida Avenue. (The van’s 25-year-old driver later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.) Salovesh, 54, was an active member of the bike advocacy community in D.C.; he routinely tweeted about riding in the city and advocated for a less incremental approach to making safe streets.

“He was a good rabble rouser, and I considered him a friend,” says Charles Allen. Salovesh was one of Allen’s constituents in Ward 6. “Dave believed strongly in accountability in government. He could call me out for something I’d done that he disagreed with, then go right back to talking about baseball, or our kids.”

After his death, the fight for safe streets became much more personal, for bike advocates, for elected officials, and for DDOT.

“We were all dealing with this profound grief,” Maisler says. “I was in a complete daze that Saturday.” After a coordination call with fellow safe streets advocates, they made a plan to write to elected officials and hold a rally at the steps of the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, that next Friday.

But the next day—Easter Sunday—a 31-year-old man named Abdul Seck who was visiting friends in Southeast D.C. from the Bronx was hit by a car while walking at 16th and V when a driver failed to stop at the intersection and collided with another vehicle. Pinned under the vehicle, he died of a cardiac arrest that Monday. The car’s 21-year-old driver was charged with second-degree murder.

Community advocate Ron Thompson Jr. organized a vigil on Wednesday, where Maisler met him and asked him to speak at the rally. “The unfortunate proximity of two tragedies at two very different places with two very different people brought me and folks of my community—in Ward 8, Southeast, predominantly black, very low-income—together with folks who are predominantly white, with college degrees, and affluent or more wealthy than us, around this common issue,Thompson says.

The two victims shared something else: Better road design could have helped prevent their deaths. By the end of the summer, both crash sites saw fixes implemented by DDOT. On Florida Avenue, where Salovesh was killed, emergency legislation finally expedited a protected bike lane that had been planned for years on a road long known as dangerous.

Thompson also knew the intersection where Seck died: His mother had been in a minor car crash there just months before. The pattern of reactive problem-solving fit what Thompson, now working as an equity organizer with the urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, had seen advocating for basic fixes in his neighborhood.

Ron Thompson, Jr. (center) speaks at the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People at the steps of the Wilson Building, while Rachel Maisler (right) holds the megaphone. (Aimee Custis/CityLab)

“The best way to get DDOT to do things was to tweet it out to them and shame them into what they should already do,” Thompson says. “There’s deep inequity there, when you have to do this performative petition in order to get basic infrastructure in your neighborhood so that a child can walk to school safely.”

At the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People that Friday, a crowd of several hundred community members showed up before an installation of ghost bikes at the doorstep of the Wilson Building. They held a mass “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue and shared anguished stories about friends and family members they’d lost to traffic violence. “It was all these different pieces of the advocacy community coming together,” Maisler says. “Everyone has a different point of view, but every single voice melded together to elevate the message and drive it home that safe streets matter for every one in the city.”

Visible signs of progress

D.C.’s bike advocates have never been shy about telling DDOT what it could or should be doing to make the city’s streets safer—and showing it how to do it. Salovesh was known to place red Solo cups on painted bike lanes to show the dangers to cyclists, or deploy pool noodles on a bike lane that had become a favorite U-turn spot for drivers. (The latter led DDOT to add wheel-stop barriers to the lane.)

Many activists have continued in that vein—from the “DC Department of Transformation” that creates pop-up infrastructure, to the How’s My Driving App, which reports errant drivers to 311 and digs up their outstanding driving tickets. An activist painted the crosswalk where Abdul Seck had been struck before DDOT came to do it themselves.

At an intersection in D.C.’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, painted pedestrian bulb-outs slow drivers taking turns. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

Salovesh’s friend Rudi Riet, a local mobility advocate in D.C., calls these interventions “pushing the city beyond the hypotheticals.” They’re also about making the streets more playful as well as safer. “People will gravitate toward things that are fun, that are enjoyable, that make you smile, that lower your blood pressure,” Riet says. “We equate sweetness with pleasure. Dave wanted to equate riding a bike and walking with pleasure and make it a game.”

Over the summer, DDOT seemed to embrace that that experimental approach. The agency repurposed timber for bike lane barriers, and placed speed stars to calm alley traffic near a local school. They piloted rush-hour bus-only lanes downtown and then made it permanent. “Our real effort this year has been to shape the way that we’re delivering projects,” Marootian says. The mayor challenged us with identifying our highest impact projects and accelerating the delivery of them in every way that we possibly can.”

For example: On a Saturday in early October, the city closed three miles of one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous roads, Georgia Avenue, for an Open Streets event, turning the four-lane thoroughfare into a space for steel drum bands, skateboard ramps, yoga classes, and a bouncy house.

DDOT director Jeff Marootian on Georgia Avenue during Open Streets D.C. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

“Georgia Avenue is a vibrant corridor with lots of businesses and residents,” Marootian said. “It really has a dynamic energy that we thought could be harnessed for an Open Streets event. One of our goals is really to capture people’s imagination about what our streets could look like in the future.”

Marootian also says that the city’s coming Vision Zero progress will also focus on equity issues, pointing to the horizon of capital projects over the next four years that will direct more resources on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.

There are a slew of new bills designed to bolster street safety under consideration. Among them is a mandate to finish installing the network of protected bike lanes envisioned in a 2005 Bicycle Master Plan. Other bills would require all-way stops and sidewalks on both sides of the street as a default on residential roads, a citywide ban on right-on-red, dedicated bus lanes for each the city’s eight wards, and dropping speed limits to 20 mph on most city streets. “We’re taking the kitchen sink approach,” Allen says. “The time for nibbling at the edge and half measures is over. We need to have the political guts to make decisions that prioritize someone’s life. If you’re going to say Vision Zero, you’ve got to mean it.”

For traffic safety advocates in the District, the progress is welcomed, but it’s still not enough. I like seeing the action from DDOT, and I commend them,” Riet says. “I just wish that it wasn’t reactionary.” He’s worried that the latest traffic safety bills will get watered down. But mostly, he wants the city to remember the human costs of inaction.

That’s where the death of Dave Salovesh comes into the picture. Reducing him to a symbol, in a way, is a shame; his friend was a lot more than just a bike advocate. “Dave was a father. He was a PTA guy. He was a coach,” Riet says. The same goes for all the other lives lost on D.C.’s streets. “It didn’t matter whether they were on bicycles, on foot, or even if they were in a car. These tragedies could have been prevented.

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Want Better Streets? Just Add Paint.

If you’re frustrated with the slow speed of efforts to make streets safer, perhaps you should grab a paint brush.

During New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the city reclaimed 180 acres of road space, creating 60 park plazas in large part by rerouting traffic and simply painting the surface of the road. The effort transformed many city streets from something other than the “sea of gray” that urban corridors tend to be.

“Reclaiming these streets gave us a huge canvas for vibrant art and safe-street designs,” Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, said at the CityLab DC conference on Monday. “But these projects are more than eye candy. They can deliver significant safety benefits for pennies on the dollar.”

Now Sadik-Khan and Bloomberg want to help more cities—especially small and mid-size cities—do the same thing. Bloomberg Associates, in collaboration with Street Plans Collaborative, announced the Asphalt Art Initiative on Monday in an effort to spur more roadway and pedestrian interventions on a blacktop canvas.

Along with the new street guide, Bloomberg announced a competition: Ten small and mid-sized American cities can receive up to $25,000 each to implement their own arts-driven transportation projects to be completed by the end of 2020. Cities with anywhere between 30,000 and 500,000 residents are eligible to apply. Applications are due Thursday, December 12, 2019.

Pearl Street Triangle mural by David Ellis. (Photo by David Ellis and Chris Keohane)

“Blacktop can become a backdrop for new public spaces,” Sadik-Khan said.

Colorful designs can have traffic-calming effects on roadways, identify space for pedestrians, or even simply make underpasses and road barriers less of an eyesore. Projects like this can also be an avenue for community engagement within a changing city.

“We used Paint the Town not just to enhance safety and aesthetics, but to do what we call place keeping,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said at the event. Place keeping is much different than place making. Place keeping is about engaging the people that already live in a space and allowing them to preserve the stories, the culture.”

Last year, for example, OakDOT partnered with the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, one of the city’s largest affordable housing developers, as part of revitalization efforts near West Oakland’s historic California Hotel.

A painting project played an important role in signaling that change was coming to the once derelict hotel and the area around it that was dominated by a freeway. The murals depicted piano keys, musical notes, and a hall of fame that lists performers like Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, who came to one of the first venues to welcome African Americans in Oakland. With new ground-floor uses to the hotel’s former music venue, the painting signaled that music and business were coming back to the corridor.

Paint the Town mural by East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation (EBALDC), Oakland, CA. (Photo by City of Oakland DOT)

Asphalt art can also be personal for the people painting it. They can commemorate lives lost to road violence or other tragedies. Schaaf told a story about how street art became a way to memorialize one of the co-founders of Oakland’s Scraper Bike Team, who was killed by a stray bullet. “This was their way to grieve and memorialize their friend,” she said.

Tony Garcia, the co-founder of Street Plans, said asphalt art provides a new outlet for regular street activists to push for change. “I think people are hungry for another way of being involved that is not going to council or voting or writing letters,” Garcia said.

While an effort to permanently make dramatic changes to a street can provoke pushback, the temporary paint installations can be a conversation starter for the community. Garcia helped design a temporary street design at Coxe Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. He said one woman in the area initially resisted the project. “She’s yelling at us, ‘I know what you people are doing. You’re defacing the street. This is graffiti. I’m gonna call the police,’” he said.

But then she started asking more questions out of curiosity, and Garcia explained how the street painting would mark the street festivals that happen there. “When we started doing some of the butterflies, she was the biggest advocate.” She asked if the installation was going to be permanent or expand to more streets, which Garcia said shows the success of these temporary street-tattooing projects.

“I said, ‘If you really like this, call your mayor and say that you support it.’ That change is what we’re looking for.” He said other asphalt art projects have also been delivering slower speeds from cars.

Coxe Avenue mural by Sound Mind Creative, Asheville, NC. (Photo by Justin Mitchell)

Unconventional crosswalks are opening up a gray area for local transportation planning, as the Federal Highway Administration has been asking cities like Ames, Iowa, to remove the colorful street markings to comply with its strict federal safety guidelines. Asked about this, the Asphalt Art team recommended cities take a “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” approach.

A lot of times nobody’s paying really a whole lot of attention,” Sadik-Khan said. “There’s been no data that shows that colored crosswalks are any more dangerous. The fact that we have 40,000 people dying on streets of this nation every year should probably be the focus.”

By painting a street, people may begin to feel safer and also begin to interact with their roads and their city in a new way.

“Generally, people do not have a joyous relationship with their roads,” Schaaf said. “It’s where they hit potholes. It’s where they get parking tickets. Roads are usually the most negative engagement that you have with your government, and so it has been wonderful to transform that into positivity.”

Hiring local, less professional artists provided another opportunity, too. “I was worried it might look kind of janky,” Schaaf said. “But you actually get tremendous beauty when you trust your community.”

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When a City Closes the Streets to Cars, It Opens Streets to People

If you look at any city in the world from the sky, the largest public space is always the streets. Streets are designed for one purpose: to get vehicles from one place to another. Open streets programs transform those streets into meeting places, art installations, and parks, by closing them to cars and opening them to people. For anyone who has experienced the power of open streets firsthand, the sense of joy and freedom can be overwhelming.

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